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NHL’s coverage exposed during lockout

It was 6:30 p.m. on a Thursday night in the midst of the most bizarre evening of the NHL lockout. Donald Fehr spoke on two separate occasions – once with a positive tone, the other negative – before Gary Bettman and Bill Daly dropped the hammer for 32 minutes.

Though it wasn’t the message hockey fans were hoping for, it had the potential to be great television. It was great television in Canada. Hockey fans north of the border were glued to TSN as Fehr raised optimism, only to have it be squashed by an upset and irate Bettman.

However, in the States, the press conferences were nowhere to be found.

The network that should have been covering it, NHL Network, was showing another re-run of Pioneers. Hockey fans in the U.S. had to resort to Twitter to get the latest from New York City, or hope that any stream from TSN or Sportsnet at any time last week wasn’t ‘Canada-only’.

The NFL, MLB and NBA networks interrupt old programming to bring an important news conference. That’s what those networks always do. When there is a blockbuster trade in baseball, MLB Network is there with analysis. When there is a notable press conference taking place, NBA TV is there to cover it. When Tim Tebow gets up out of bed, NFL Network breaks it all down.

Not the NHL Network. No way, Jose. Staying on top of the latest news is not their modus operandi. Providing any sort of coverage of the lockout is apparently way too much to ask. I recall tuning into NFL Network for the latest on its lockout in 2011. I’m not even asking for daily wall-to-wall coverage of the NHL lockout. But how hard is it to break in to the 208th re-run of Pioneers: Andy Bathgate and give fans what they really want to see?

It’s 30 minutes in primetime on a weeknight with Bettman teeing off on Fehr, the most stunning turn of events thus far this lockout. I’m sure TSN had good ratings. NHL Network didn’t, because they were oblivious.

To find video of Bettman’s presser, an hour after it concluded, I had to go to TSN.ca. I don’t care where I see the video, but I shouldn’t have to go beyond NHL.com or NHL Network to find it. (Video was eventually posted, in segments, on NHL.com that night.)

This isn’t an isolated incident, either. If the network has proven anything during its existence it’s that if any off-season news item takes place after July 4th, there’s a 99 percent chance it won’t be covered. The day Rick Nash was traded to New York? Nothing. The day Nashville matched Shea Weber’s offer sheet? Nothing.

MLB Network covered last week’s Winter Meetings (where not a lot of transactions took place, mind you) with roughly 10 hours of live programming per day. Ten! And they will continue to be on top of all the off-season happenings between now and March.

After Independence Day in America, the NHL Network shuts down and plays random playoff games and old, watered-down programming. That needs to change if the NHL Network wants to enhance its overall coverage. Otherwise, what is the point of having the network? The 2011 hiring of Mark Preisler, previously executive producer of ESPN’s Sportscenter, was a step in the right direction for the NHL Network. Yet there is still a long way to go for the only network hockey fans in America can rely on for coverage – except, they’re not getting that coverage.

While I’m on the topic of fixable coverage, this lockout has exposed some other flaws the league has under the whole media umbrella.

During this lockout I’ve watched more basketball than I had in the previous five, maybe 10 years. I’m actually starting to come around on the NBA (please, NHL, come back!).

As crazy as it may sound, one reason why I’ve been sucked into watching the NBA regularly is its TV coverage. I’m not talking about the daily, staged scream-a-thons on ESPN. I’m talking about the top-notch analysis on TNT and NBA TV.

The other night I was watching Inside the NBA, the weekly postgame show on TNT. If you’ve never seen the show, you’re missing the best hour of comedy in sports television. You don’t even have to be a basketball fan to enjoy the laid-back banter between Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal following TNT’s Thursday doubleheaders. They offer something that no NHL studio show has ever offered: a tremendous blend of analysis and humor.

The former players the NHL gets to provide insight on NBC or NHL Network – Kevin Weekes, Mike Johnson, Bob Errey, etc. – are great. Craig Button, a former general manager, gives an outstanding view inside the mind of a front office staffer. But they are all, essentially, the same. None of them stand out. None of them jump off the TV screen or make you laugh or make you wish there was another hour of the show.

NBC Sports Network’s overall presentation has improved drastically since the lockout, but the pre- and post-game shows, as well as intermission reports, are the same stale shows every night that have little to offer. They are stiff and awkward at times. They don’t give you a reason to stick around and watch. Analysis wise, I’ve learned more about the X’s and O’s of basketball from TNT than I ever have about hockey from the NHL’s in-game coverage (maybe because I’ve been a hockey fan my whole life and played as a kid, whereas I’ve only watched basketball leisurely).

Jeremy Roenick, the NHL’s biggest TV personality, isn’t afraid to express emotion publicly (a rarity in hockey media). However, he is usually found on the same set as Pierre McGuire and Mike Milbury, who both believe their brains are larger than the planet we live on, or Mike Keenan, whose job description should never entail talking in front of a TV.

Aside from Roenick, there are plenty of hockey players, current and former, with a great sense of humor; I’ve seen it firsthand in locker rooms (though a lot of it can’t be repeated on the air). There are also a lot of laid-back, classy, “good guys” in hockey that wouldn’t be suited for TV – and not everyone is.

It’s probably unfair to expect the NHL to match what the NBA has going on TNT and NBA TV – because nothing is better than an hour of Inside the NBA or NBA TV’s NBA GameTime, which is similar to NHL Tonight but more watchable.

Perhaps the biggest issue I have with NBC or NHL Network is how scripted their coverage comes across. They don’t maximize what they can get out of Roenick or any of the other analysts. The thing that allows Inside the NBA to be so great is how Ernie Johnson, the host, stays in the background and lets Barkley and O’Neal dictate the flow of the show instead of going to commercial or changing the subject in the middle of a humorous exchange between the two.

I’m sure Roenick has good stories from his hockey playing days that are TV-suitable, but we rarely hear them because he’s either yelling at Milbury or following the show’s script of trying to fit too much serious analysis into a 30-minute program. The same goes for Keith Jones, who is also one of NBC Sports Network’s select few quality analysts.

How about they put Roenick and Jones together for a one hour postgame show after all NBC Sports Network games? Why not put those two in front of the camera and let them dictate the show’s flow, with both humor and analysis, as Liam McHugh mediates? It doesn’t seem too farfetched of an idea or possibility.

The NHL’s version of TNT’s coverage is TSN, where the top insiders and a few good analysts reside, but there’s nothing like it here in the U.S. when it easily could be done if the finances are there.

Another observation I’ve made (not just this fall) is one I see mentioned by hockey fans almost every Sunday: NHL On the Fly is useless compared to what the NFL has to offer. NFL Red Zone is a dream channel for pigskin lovers. No commercials. No fuss. Just football. All day, every Sunday.

If the NHL Network higher-ups are paying attention, maybe when they see Red Zone they envision an ‘NHL Power Play’-type show, where they show every game where there is a power play and jump around to live action and provide instant analysis of all the great goals and saves. MLB Network’s MLB Tonight and NBA TV’s NBA GameTime do something similar and also blow away NHL On the Fly.

Just some thoughts and ideas, among many, that the folks at NHL Network and NBC should take into consideration the next time they ponder how they can improve the league’s overall coverage.


UPDATE: The following quote from NHL COO John Collins was brought to my attention by reader Sean Leahy:

“We were watching all the other networks to see how they handled the lockouts on their networks. [NFL Network] looked at it like it was really an external news organization and really went out of their way to not only give the league perspective, but also the players, which I thought was great. The NBA went a different direction based on certain restrictions their bargaining agreement may have. For us, we haven’t really covered the lockout on our platforms from a news standpoint. We haven’t used it as a bully pulpit to get the league’s message out there. We’ve sort of been very quiet throughout this negotiation and I think we’ll remain that way.”

Again, disappointing.

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